Descartes and Retail

I don’t want to bad mouth minds greater than mine. However, I suspect that – at least when it comes to marketing – Descartes may have led us up the garden path. He doesn’t appear in many marketing textbooks, but his seminal words, “I think, therefore I am”, form the cornerstone of the way Western culture views the world and the people within it.  

We’ve known for a long time that people aren’t entirely rational, and the movement beyond the rational is picking up pace. Advertising has long taken advantage of low-level attention processing to bypass some of our more rational evaluations. More recently, behavioural economics has introduced us to the irrationality of our thought processes. Models reflecting less logical, rational decision-making are replacing linear purchase models. But we still fundamentally focus on using words and pictures to change the thoughts that people have.

Not only do we focus on people’s thoughts, but we feel safer the closer to the rational we get. Brand led campaigns always feel like more of a risk; removing product and price from front and centre tend to require rigorous justification to the business. A campaign with a big product shot and a huge price slapped on it is much easier for both clients and their business stakeholders to buy. Plus, brand campaigns are often seen as a luxury for while things are going well; during tough times marketers retreat back to price as a safe solution. Homo economicus may be a fantasy, but in a tight corner, many businesses assume he (or she!) is alive and well. Retreating to price led promotion erodes profit margins, and represents a failure to invest in brand assets that could increase the price people are willing to pay for the product in the future.

What if we diverged from Descartes, and saw the world differently? The Descartian vision of the person sees the mind as the captain of the ship, the body merely as a vessel for the real you. The relationship between the two is increasingly seen as more complex. Let’s imagine the impact of a view that saw the two as totally integrated. Then, the experiences that your body had would be placed alongside your thoughts as a key driver of your feelings and actions.

This alternative view of the world opens the door to many of the marketing activities currently sitting on the fringe of marketing; where multisensory marketing becomes really important. As a retail planner, I believe that retail environments have the power to interact with the body and speak to the unconscious mind. The most powerful retail experiences borrow from other fields that are more open to the connection with non-rational parts of our human experience; architecture, the arts, cookery.

A quick shopping trip in London – it’s a tough job but someone has to do it – is the perfect opportunity to see the masters in action. Burberry’s flagship is most famous for its digital capabilities, but its enormous domed interior creates a theatre for shopping. Walking down the sweeping marble staircases you are suddenly transformed into a princess, invited into Burberry’s luxurious world.

At Wholefoods, visual merchandising is worth a thousands words. The unwrapped pre-chopped vegetables, the experience of making your own nut butter, having your coffee ground or dispensing your own lentils. You are in the mecca of healthy eating, a health pioneer with perfect peanut butter. Perhaps you’ll even book that yoga class you’ve been putting off.

At Nespresso, the store borrows from the wine world, complete with taste station to awaken latent coffee gourmets. By learning to taste subtle flavours in coffee you are introduced to an element of the coffee drinking experience you hadn’t previously considered. Of course you too can have the discerning taste of George Clooney.

At J-Crew, the clothes are exhibited alongside objects and books are exhibited between the clothes. The perfectly matched colours of the pink book on modern art and the sweater below combine in a moment of synchronicity; for a second the t-shirt becomes a part of a bigger art world beyond it.

Photo: J Crew retail environment
Photo: J Crew retail environment

I appreciate this may sound a little far fetched. As you read, your conscious mind begins to evaluate, your sense of reason rolling its eyes. I get it. But the key, is that you don’t think any of this. You don’t buy a £50 t-shirt because you think “I want to belong to something, and this £50 conveys something about me in a way that a £5 t-shirt simply couldn’t”. You buy a £50 t-shirt because you are swept by a sudden sense that the money doesn’t matter as much as what you suddenly feel you need.

I would encourage all marketers to consider the entirety of the retail experience – not just the products, not just the efficient placement or the scientific pricing. But not from behind their desks. You just can’t escape the constraints of your conscious mind there. You must go outside and into other stores and let your body experience the store. Trust me – it’s an untapped resource.

Descartes was right; thinking is important. But when it comes to buying, that isn’t the whole picture. You buy because you feel, and you feel because you experience. We may be because we think. But we live (and buy) because we feel.

About the Author

Nicola Carter_Rufus Leonard_expert

Nicola Carter is a Senior Planner at Rufus Leonard with over 4 years’ experience. She joined Rufus Leonard in 2011 as a retail, brand and communications strategist. Nicola’s background is in above the line communications, and she has worked across a variety of sectors including education, retail, government, charity and financial services. She has experience with a range of clients including Halfords, Bathstore, Depression Alliance, COI, and Lloyds Banking Group.